Some years ago, I made a new friend, R. Or, more correctly, given that I am secretly shy (yes, we exist) and manifestly lazy, R made friends with me, seeking me out frequently and showering me with interest. We enjoyed our time together, talking endlessly, curious about each other’s minds and quick to share a wicked joke or mischievous gossip. We felt affection and concern for each other. R admired me and expressed it often, to me and the world, which made me feel both validated and uneasy, because I didn’t behave the same way.
If it sounds like a romance, that’s because every friendship is, in fact, one. To enjoy each other, to feel one’s intellectual and emotional sense-making of the world enlivened by a different perspective, to be soothed when hurt or teased when self-important, and, in the process, to reveal oneself as much as have oneself revealed through the friend — what else is that but a kind of love? This is why, friendships, so hospitable to a deep individuality, help us renew our relationship with ourselves.
Yet, I was often ambivalent about time spent with R. The air between us was sometimes restless with dissatisfaction and I would feel I was falling short of being the perfect friend. Perhaps, it arose simply from the contrast of R being emotionally efficient, while I am an emotional spendthrift, quick to cry and speedy to thrill. I would think: maybe, at first, we covet an opposite quality in someone, but perhaps it soon begins to frustrate and destabilise us. It will shift.
But over time, the dissonances thickened. R regarded me with distrust, I became withholding and passive aggressive. I complained incessantly to friends, who, fed up, would say “Why don’t you stop being friends then?” I would instantly feel guilty and ungrateful. I would think of the warmth, generosity and affection R showed me and judge myself for overanalysing the discord. “No no, R is not so bad,” I would say. “After all, you are hearing only my side of things.”
I pride myself on a commitment to friendship. And had other friendships not had their share of disaffection? Where there is intimacy, there is likely to be some violence. But, as lovers entangle and disentangle limbs and adjust curves and breathing distance till they find a good fit in sleeping together, so we had wriggled and shifted, retreated and advanced to find the right shape for our friendships, the hurt cushioned by the love, the compassion, the companionship and shared enjoyment. Surely with R, too, it was only a matter of trying.
But the save-the-friendship mode only turned the friendship from a pleasure into a chore on both sides. Eventually, this harrowing interaction came to its natural conclusion — a big fight, during which I found myself shouting at R: “I don’t know why you want to be friends with me! You don’t seem to like me at all.”
The room faltered into silence. R teared up, to my surprise. We never really spoke again after that. Sometimes, when a really true truth has been spoken, it is hard to go back to moderated truths.
I realised I had been constantly trimming bits of myself through the relationship, trying to curate a version of me that would not irk (or be irked by) R, and yet would not be a defeat of myself. In essence, then, as I saw it, R had finally rejected me. To be the victim is a moral delight and a juicy temptation. But, in truth, had I not also failed to accept R? In other words, I must accept that I, too, had rejected R.
Rejection. That monster under our beds we do everything to keep at bay. But that may be because we believe rejection is a one-way act of power, where one rejects and the other is rejected. The truth is that, in many instances, rejection is often mutual. In this moment of mutual rejection, R and I had, in fact, released each other from a clumsy dance of non-acceptance, equally of the other and of ourselves.
In the days that followed, I felt a sense of expansion, at first guiltily, then with a kind of inner unfurling and unfolding. Talking to a friend about the fight I said, “The one thing I understood was I really am like this. I can’t be different. If it’s awful, so be it.” Now I was like a novitiate, renewing my vows to myself. I felt a strong sense of who I was — a queer-straight woman (yes, we exist); an artist who always takes the long, if scenic route; a romantic feminist, a gregarious curmudgeon (yes, we exist!), irritable and a bit egocentric, though generally nice enough — and that, a territory comes with it. In my work life, too, I have often felt (as all artists do) a bit rejected by the liberal establishment, but after all, I’ve always had the choice to make different, “acceptable” work.
Love, need, difficulty can make us alter our behaviour. But our nature — like all things in nature — is a place of fertile and uncontrollable growth governed by its own logic. It finds its own way in the world, its own unruly growth. Each mutual rejection — if we can see it as mutual — returns us to ourselves, renews the understanding of who we are to ourselves, our tendencies, our curiosities, our desires, our limitations. A rose by another name would simply be prickly, so to speak.
In the contemporary moment, “being yourself” is often sold to us as something ineffable. As if, there is a virgin self, noble and unadulterated, found in the departmental store of life, between Auroville Mindfulness and Vintage Chic, which we must find and display for best results. This is a capitalist sense of self we are encouraged to have, one which can be curated into a seamless narrative of the “personal”, where “vulnerability” becomes an identity, not a state we pass through on the way to a different self. It is an emotional efficiency model where every act and feeling must yield a response, an outcome, measurable attention or we begin to feel invisible, unseen, unsee-able — something exemplified by social media. It is a treadmill pretending to be a journey.
Our social media lives may seem self-centred, but, in fact they primarily face outwards, to the gaze of other people, more public than private. If anything, they are not self-centred, self-involved enough in a poetic sense. Where is the room for secret, dark places in our nature, where strange flora, petalled and bacterial, bloom, alerting us to our own leanings? This fertility, in dark, wet, sometimes lonely places of the self, is an emotionally inefficient but regenerative process. There are no relationship agreements to be made here, no guarantees of love or success, and the permanent risk of being inconvenient to some and irrelevant to others. Some seeds fall on fallow ground, some result in passionately blooming flowers and medicinal plants.
Living in the world is a meditative and mysterious path, but its product is not a controlled and self-congratulatory vulnerability, but a violent, yet meaningful, vulnerability — it is the constant mirror-play of revealing yourself and being revealed in relationships, for the creature you are or are becoming. The business of being yourself, or becoming yourself, is mostly a helpless act, often bloody and cyclical, born from the risky collisions with other minds, hearts and bodies.
Paromita Vohra is a filmmaker based in Mumbai.